Certainly Pulitzer’s long war with the New York Journal (which William Randolph Hearst had purchased from Pulitzer’s brother) was more a matter of business acumen than visionary journalism. His rival’s success rested on, as Morris puts it, human interest stories “spiced with risqué items, humor and, above all, a slavish devotion to society news.” The World descended into “sensationalist word-to-word combat with the Journal,” whose exploding circulation threatened Pulitzer’s reputation and political power.
In Morris’s interpretation, Hearst lured “the World down into what many people in the city regarded as gutter journalism.” But the author does not include many specifics of just how Pulitzer was dragged down by Hearst, and this omission harms the book. Nor does Morris describe Pulitzer’s accomplishments sufficiently to suggest why he was an heroic publisher, beyond his eye for the main chance and his early, populist leanings.
The latter, of course, did not last. Within little more than a decade of its purchase by Pulitzer, the World went “from being the bad boy of Park Row to being a stodgy defender of the political establishment.” And its owner was transformed from an idealistic reformer to a wealthy solipsist, who was “incapable of acknowledging the suffering of others.” Idiosyncrasies abounded in Pulitzer’s personal and private life. Guests found his company hard to take, enduring his “strictures against slurping soup or crunching on toast.” At the office, he did not want any short men hired.
Nor was his family life any more rewarding. Pulitzer spent little time with his wife Kate and their children, and when he did, he could be disagreeable and distant. Morris notes, “Even when he was at his best, Joseph made their marriage an ordeal for Kate. If he was not too consumed by work, he was haunted by sickness, real and imagined. As his worries about work and his fears for his health mounted, so did his notorious temper and impatience.”
In painting his portrait of this flawed tycoon, Morris has drawn on previously unavailable material: an unpublished memoir by Albert Pulitzer, who spent most of his life estranged from his more famous brother, and a cache of letters to Kate Pulitzer from her lover, Arthur Brisbane, a brilliant editor for Pulitzer who later defected to Hearst’s camp. In fact, the author speculates that 1895, Kate Pulitzer may have become pregnant with Herbert, the couple’s youngest child, by Brisbane.
If Brisbane was indeed the father, Joseph Pulitzer was not aware of his patrimony. In his will, he astonished the rest of his children by leaving sixty percent of his newspaper holdings to Herbert. But Herbert and his brother Ralph, who jointly ran the World, were ill-equipped to do so. They had inherited little of their father’s journalistic spark. Nor had Joseph Pulitzer really put a succession plan in place. As Morris writes, “the blame [for the paper’s gradual decline] rested as much on their father as on the two sons. As an absentee owner, Joseph had refused to cede sufficient control so that a corporate management structure could be built.”
Roy Howard, another media baron, purchased the World in 1931, closed it down, and added the name to another one of his papers, the New York World-Telegram. The family sold the Post-Dispatch—the paper that “ran itself”—in 2005. What remains of Joseph Pulitzer’s legacy are the journalism school and prizes he endowed at Columbia.
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Correction: In the original version of this story, CJR reported that the Pulitzer family sold the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1995. They actually sold it in 2005. The relevant paragraph has been corrected. We regret the error.